Book of the Week: 'Land of Hope'

Book of the Week: 'Land of Hope'
Scott P. Yates/Rockford Register Star via AP

EDITOR’S NOTE: In this RealClearBooks series, we highlight recent nonfiction books from across the political spectrum. This week’s book is Wilfred McClay's' 'Land of Hope', just published by Encounter Books.

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In Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, Wilfred M. McClay has produced an inspiring exploration of America’s past that is out of step with the fashionably fractured narratives found in most U.S. history textbooks. More to the point, Land of Hope reads like a direct challenge to Howard Zinn’s wildly popular A People’s History of the United States. McClay's book does not whitewash our history, but presents an honest and fair accounting that recognizes the astonishing success of the American experiment. If any U.S. history survey in recent memory has a chance to unseat Zinn in the classroom, it just might be McClay's delightfully written tome. 

Features:

Naomi Schafer Riley, Wall Street Journal: If you’re old enough to remember the Soviet Union, you’ve probably wondered why so many young people today seem attracted to socialism. One influence is Howard Zinn, who published “A People’s History of the United States” in 1980, the year before the first millennials were born.

The book “continues to be assigned in countless college and high-school courses, but its commercial sales have remained strong as well,” the Chronicle of Higher Education reported in 2003, on the occasion of its millionth copy sold. It kept selling after Zinn died in 2010: The Zinn Education Program website now claims more than two million sales.

Historian Wilfred McClay aspires to be the antidote to Zinn, whom he accuses of “greatly oversimplifying the past and turning American history into a comic-book melodrama in which ‘the people’ are constantly being abused by ‘the rulers.’ ” Mr. McClay’s counterpoint, which comes out next week, is titled “Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story.”

He says he doesn’t mean his new book as “some saccharine whitewash of American history.” But he’s seen too many students drawn to Zinn because the standard textbooks are visionless and tedious. “Just as nature abhors a vacuum,” Mr. McClay says, “so a culture will find some kind of grand narrative of itself to feed upon, even a poisonous one.”

A lousy story is better than no story at all: “We historians have for years been supplying an account of the American past that is so unedifying and lacking in larger perspective that Zinn’s sweeping melodrama looks good by comparison. Zinn’s success is indicative of our failure. We have to do better.” Read the full article.

Wilfred McClay, FOX News: There is a strong tendency in modern American society to treat patriotism as a dangerous sentiment, a passion to be guarded against. But this is a serious misconception. To begin with, we should acknowledge that there is something natural about patriotism, as an expression of love for what is one’s own, gratitude for what one has been given, and reverence for the sources of one’s being.

These responses are instinctive; they’re grounded in our natures and the basic facts of our birth. Yet their power is no less for that, and they are denied only at great cost.

Another one of the deepest needs of the human soul is a sense of membership, of joy in what we have and hold in common with others. Much of the time, though, the way we Americans talk about ourselves takes us in the opposite direction.

We like to think of the individual person as something that exists prior to all social relations, capable of standing free and alone, able to choose the terms on which he or she makes common cause with others. Even our own battered but still-magnificent Constitution, with its systemic distrust of all concentration of power, assumes that we are fundamentally self-interested creatures. This does capture some part of the truth about us. But only a part.

For among our deepest longings is the desire to belong, and it is an illusion to believe that we can sustain a stable identity in isolation, living apart from the eyes and ears and words of others. Our nation’s particular triumphs, sacrifices, and sufferings — and our memories of those things — draw and hold us together, precisely because they are the sacrifices and sufferings, not of all humanity, but of us alone. In this view, there is no more profoundly American place than Arlington National Cemetery or the Civil War battlegrounds of Antietam and Shiloh. Read the full editorial.

Reviewed:

Bruce P. Frohen, University Bookman: Land of Hope is no mere textbook. It makes available to general readers, as well as college and advanced high school students, a one-volume retelling of “the Great American Story” that is accurate and moving, enlightening and exciting. As McClay observes, stories are the means by which we “speak to the fullness of our humanity” and which we need “to orient ourselves in the world.” And so this book eschews graphs, tables, and lists, instead telling its readers about powerful characters, life-changing events, and long-term developments in America from before its European settlement to the new millennium, all as part of a larger story of hope in ordered liberty and opportunity.

McClay begins with background on both the new and the old worlds, setting the stage, as it were, so that the reader may know the natural and human conditions of the land as well as the character of those who would settle and reshape it into the United States. Covering, in narrative form, the major events, trends, and personalities of our history, it focuses on the formation and development of the “habit of self-government” as developed in the colonies and challenged time and again up to the present day. Settlement, revolution, Civil War, and other great events are put in context, as are cultural and intellectual developments from transcendentalism to immigration, the industrial revolution to the rise of Progressivism.

McClay is engaged in no quixotic attempt to unmake or ignore prevailing theories of American political and social development. Instead, he retells the stories of western expansion, of Indian wars and the institutionalization of slavery, of civil rights struggles, the Depression, and the Cold War in a manner that is fair and even generous to all concerned. (One might quibble that McClay is rather too generous to the tyrant Henry VIII and rather too harsh toward conservative stalwart and failed presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, but overall the tone is just right.) There is no score-settling here, no attempt to put forth any grand ideological vision from either the left or the right. Instead, McClay works to help make citizens in the important sense that to be a member of our self-governing society requires understanding its culture, its good as well as its bad actions, and how they made us what we are as a people. Read the full review.

Howard L. Muncy, Public Discourse: Most Americans will learn only one account of their country’s history during their formative years. It is anyone’s guess which account that may be, but its impact on the general public will be greater than we might want to admit.

In his latest work, Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, University of Oklahoma history professor Wilfred McClay offers a new survey of American history. When I was asked to review it, I put myself on guard. I was skeptical that I would find a new and “fair” American history text. Instead, I expected to find yet another work with a political angle, whether sharp or hidden.

Experience has taught me that bias more often enters history textbooks through what their authors omit from the standard account, rather than through any new topics they might add. So, I immediately turned to the chapters that would be most vulnerable to revision.

What I encountered was a rich account of American history that had me rethinking historical events from new perspectives. My skepticism soon gave way to curiosity. As I began to race through the pages, I felt that I was learning much of the material for the first time. Read the full review.

Interviewed:

RealClearBooks: Americans on the left and right seem to have their own versions of our history. How do we bridge that gap?

McClay: This is going to be a great challenge. But part of it will involve clearing our minds of cant and illusion. In this respect, I think that a certain kind of pop postmodernism has done us a great disservice in undermining the idea that there can be truth in history, preferring the lazy and self-serving idea that “narrative is all,” and your narrative and my narrative are equally good, since they are “ours” and are therefore incontestable. But truth is the basis of our common world. We cannot have a common world unless we can agree on its contours. So this “my narrative” business cannot be sustained.

That said, as I insist in Land of Hope, history itself is a narrative, and is best related and studied as a story, one whose contours we agree about. And some part of that involves agreeing not only about the facts of American history but about its larger trajectory. History can tell us a lot about that, although history cannot predict the future, and always stumbles when it tries. But as countless writers have observed, what most closely binds a people is the remembrance of its past, and of those who have sacrificed to make the future possible. One of the most deplorable aspects of the present environment has been its tendency to condescend to the past, a tendency that has even found expression in the wholesale vandalism of the past. Edmund Burke once observed that “people will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors.” When we lose the past, we also lose the future. Read the full interview. 

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